STREET v. NEW YORK

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
5
Petitioner 
Sidney Street
Respondent 
State of New York
Advocates
(for the petitioner)
(for the respondent)
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Facts of the Case 

Sidney Street was a black veteran of World War II and a recipient of the Bronze Star. He held a position with the New York City Transit Authority and had no prior criminal record. On June 6, 1966, Street was in his Brooklyn apartment listening to the radio when he heard a news announcement that civil rights activist James Meredith had been shot by a sniper during his march through Mississippi.

Street went to a bureau drawer and removed an old 48-star American flag. He carried the flag to the intersection of Lafayette Avenue and St. James Place, one block from his residence. He laid a piece of paper on the sidewalk. Then, keeping the flag properly folded, he set it on fire with a match. He held the burning flag in hand as long as he could, then laid it on the paper so that it would not touch the sidewalk. When a police officer arrived, he found Street standing over the burning flag and talking to a small group of people. Street admitted that he burned the flag. The officer later testified that he heard Street shout, “If they did that to Meredith, we don’t need an American flag.”

The New York City Criminal Court charged Street with malicious mischief for willfully and unlawfully defiling, casting contempt upon, and burning an American flag. The allegation included Street’s words at the scene of the flag burning. At trial, Street moved to dismiss the information on the grounds that Street engaged in a constitutionally protected act because the flag burning was a form of protest protected by the First Amendment. The court dismissed this motion; Street was convicted and given a suspended sentence. On appeal, the court affirmed Street’s conviction without opinion. The New York Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed, holding that the flag burning was an act of incitement fraught with danger to the public peace.

Question 

In a trial for flag burning, was there sufficient evidence in the record to show that Street was not convicted for constitutionally protected speech when the allegation contained his statement, “If they did that to Meredith, we don’t need an American flag”?

Conclusion 
Decision: 5 votes for Street, 4 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Amendment 1: Speech, Press, and Assembly

No. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice John Harlan, the Court held that the record lacked sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the trial court constitutionally convicted Street of flag burning. Justice Harlan first held that Street properly raised the issue of the constitutionality of the allegation’s reference to Street’s words. He applied the rule in Stromberg v. California, where the Court held that a conviction must be set aside if it could have been based on constitutionally protected speech; here, Justice Harlan could not determine from the record that Street’s words were not an independent cause of his conviction.

Justice Harlan rejected the Court of Appeals’ characterization of the flag burning as an act of incitement, holding instead that Street’s conviction furthered no government interest. He declined to rule on the broader issue of the constitutionality of New York’s flag burning statute. The Court reversed and remanded Street’s case.

Chief Justice Earl Warren dissented. He rejected the majority’s characterization of the allegation against Street, noting that New York made no attempt to prove that the crowd heard Street’s words. He argued that Street was convicted for his act, not his words, and that the state only introduced evidence of his words to show his intent.

Justice Hugo Black dissented. He agreed with the Court of Appeals that Street’s conviction rested entirely on the act of burning an American flag, and that the First and Fourteenth Amendments do not bar the states from prohibiting this act.

Justice Byron White dissented. He rejected both the majority’s assumption that Street could have been convicted for speech alone and its proposition that the entire conviction must be reversed if the speech conviction was unconstitutional. He regarded the allegation as one that provided several means for conviction, and reasoned that there was sufficient evidence of Street’s unlawful act on record.

Justice Abraham Fortas dissented. He focused on the unique legal history of the American flag, noting the peculiar obligations and restrictions wrapped up with ownership of an American flag.

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STREET v. NEW YORK. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 23 October 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_5>.
STREET v. NEW YORK, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_5 (last visited October 23, 2014).
"STREET v. NEW YORK," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed October 23, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/1960-1969/1968/1968_5.